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Writers rooms, Hollywood’s corporate-sanctioned haven for sex talk and self-indulgent stories about horrible dates, are suffering from some unexpected growing pains. The era of #MeToo and Time’s Up hasn’t just shifted daily conversations, it stands to change their tone forever as many writers second-guess their candor and showrunners strive to foster healthy environments that don’t forsake creativity.
“The room has always been, theoretically, a safe space for people to discuss their most twisted thoughts,” says Liz Meriwether, creator of Fox’s New Girl. “This is a place where you’re supposed to be able to occasionally cross a line or two, if it’s done with respect, but now you think to yourself, ‘Maybe that’s a joke that I can’t say.’ “
Questions over where the line is dog some writers, perhaps because it’s so different from room to room. One, staffed on an upcoming comedic streaming series, cites frequent breaks to allow writers to recover from “triggering conversations” — often discussions about the industrywide harassment and assault narratives and the personal stories that come out of it. Meanwhile, a network sitcom veteran sums up the post-Weinstein mood as “business as usual.” In both rooms, however, the writers acknowledge a sense that their colleagues are giving more thought before sharing a story (just not necessarily keeping it to themselves).
This is not the first time that private TV writers room discussions have spurred public debate. Several scribes who spoke for this story recall the 2004 Friends lawsuit in which a former writers assistant sued producers over, among other things, vulgar dialogue she heard in the room. The case was dismissed by the California Supreme Court in 2006, citing the fact that the writers room was a creative workplace. Industry response was decidedly different then. One writer, who took a new job that year, says she was required to sign a document affirming that she acknowledged and “welcomed” offensive subjects and discussions as vital to the creative process. While that pressure is rarely put in writing, it can be pervasive, particularly for women in male-dominated rooms. “Some women overcompensate and try to be more of a dude than all of the dudes. Some just shut down. Either way, it doesn’t make for the best work,” notes one experienced female showrunner.
“There’s an old regime of writers that operates under an archaic Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus way of thinking,” says SMILF creator and star Frankie Shaw. The first-time showrunner, who staffed a diverse room, says it’s something she tried to weed out from the start, to avoid the kind of microaggressions now raising antennae. But for the rooms still run by “older white men,” she has hope: “We can’t always blame people for believing what they’re taught. There’s space to let people learn.”
Three months into the maelstrom, it’s not the outing of Hollywood’s harassment problem that appears to be inspiring the most hope for a healthier room. It’s that studios and networks already have been making efforts to reach gender parity in writers rooms on shows like Shaw’s. Meriwether agrees there has been an evolution — albeit a long overdue one. “What’s tragic about this,” she says, “is realizing what we could have gotten as audiences if we’d fostered a better environment for women over the years.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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